A wing of the protest turned violent as around 200 people stormed 30 Millbank, the central London building that is home to Tory HQ Link to this video
Tens of thousands of students took to the streets of London today in a demonstration that spiralled out of control when a fringe group of protesters hurled missiles at police and occupied the building housing Conservative party headquarters.
Tonight both ministers and protesters acknowledged that the demonstration – by far the largest and most dramatic yet in response to the government's austerity measures – was "just the beginning" of public anger over cuts. Police, meanwhile, were criticised for failing to anticipate the scale of the disorder.
An estimated 52,000 people, according to the National Union of Students, marched through central London to display their anger over government plans to increase tuition fees while cutting state funding for university teaching. A wing of the protest turned violent as around 200 people stormed 30 Millbank, the central London building that is home to Tory HQ, where police wielding batons clashed with a crowd hurling placard sticks, eggs and some bottles. Demonstrators shattered windows and waved anarchist flags from the roof of the building, while masked activists traded punches with police to chants of "Tory scum".
Police conceded that they had failed to anticipate the level of violence from protesters who trashed the lobby of the Millbank building. Missiles including a fire extinguisher were thrown from the roof and clashes saw 14 people – a mix of officers and protesters – taken to hospital and 35 arrests. Sir Paul Stephenson, Met police commissioner, said the force should have anticipated the level ofviolence better. He said: "It's not acceptable. It's an embarrassment for London and for us."
While Tory headquarters suffered the brunt of the violence, Liberal Democrat headquarters in nearby Cowley Street were not targeted. "This is not what we pay the Met commissioner to do," one senior Conservative told the Guardian. "It looks like they put heavy security around Lib Dem HQ but completely forgot about our party HQ."
Lady Warsi, the Tory party chair, was in her office when protesters broke in. She initially had no police protection as the protesters made their way up the fire stairs to the roof. Police who eventually made it to Tory HQ decided not to evacuate staff from the building but to concentrate on removing the demonstrators.
The NUS president, Aaron Porter, condemned the actions of "a minority of idiots" but hailed the turnout as the biggest student demonstration in generations. The largely good-natured protest was organised by the NUS and the lecturers' union the UCU, who have attacked coalition plans to raise tuition fees as high as £9,000 while making 40% cuts to university teaching budgets. The higher fees will be introduced for undergraduates starting in 2012, if the proposals are sanctioned by the Commons in a vote due before Christmas. The NUS president told protesters: "We're in the fight of our lives. We face an unprecedented attack on our future before it has even begun. They're proposing barbaric cuts that would brutalise our colleges and universities."
Inside parliament the deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg – the focus of much anger among protesters for his now abandoned pledge to scrap all tuition fees – came under sustained attack, facing 10 questions on tuition fees during his stand-in performance during prime minister's questions. He said there was consensus across the parties about the need to reform the system.
Labour's deputy leader, Harriet Harman, said the rise in fees was not part of the effort to tackle the deficit but about Clegg "going along with Tory plans to shove the cost of higher education on to students and their families". She said: "We all know what it's like: you are at freshers' week, you meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret. Isn't it true he has been led astray by the Tories, isn't that the truth of it?"
Meanwhile one student won an unexpected concession from the coalition yesterday. In answer to a question from a Chinese student during his trip to China, David Cameron said: "Raising tuition fees will do two things. It will make sure our universities are well funded and we won't go on increasing so fast the fees for overseas students … We have done the difficult thing. We have put up contributions for British students. Yes, foreign students will still pay a significant amount of money, but we should now be able to keep that growth under control."
Additional reporting by Rachel Williams and Matthew Taylor
The defiant text message from student protesters who had reached the roof of the Conservative party's headquarters was sent at 3.04pm.
"We stand against the cuts, in solidarity with all the poor, elderly, disabled and working people affected," read the message, quickly circulated among a thousand rioting students in the forecourt below, who had run out of windows to smash and gathered around smouldering fires.
"We are against all cuts and the marketisation of education. We are occupying the roof of Tory HQ to show we are against the Tory system of attacking the poor and helping the rich. This is only the beginning."
If that proves to be true, the coalition government will be bracing itself for the type of violent unrest that has not been seen in the UK for decades.
The chaotic scenes in the lobby of 30 Millbank this afternoon, where brawling protesters overpowered thin lines of police, was unprecedented for a student protest, and considerably worse than the damage to an RBS building by activists at last year's G20 demonstration. Office workers were evacuated from the building as windows were shattered with rocks and sticks and CCTV cameras were ripped from the ceiling. Parts of the building were ransacked; protesters used furniture for fuel on bonfires outside. For about an hour the violent rampage bore all the hallmarks of a riot.
The Metropolitan police, who had been briefing reporters on the eve of the march to expect "nothing out of the ordinary" from the demonstration, had clearly been overwhelmed. The scale of the demonstration became apparent hours earlier, when tens of thousands gathered near Trafalgar Square at midday for a march intended to take them along the Embankment, past Westminster to Millbank, where they were told to gather for speeches.
The Met had been told to expect 15,000 protesters, and briefed journalists the night before that the National Union of Students, which co-organised the march with the University and College Union, may have inflated their numbers.
At it turned out, the figures were an underestimate. Hundreds of coaches had been booked to draft protesters in from across the country and packed crowds stretched the length of Whitehall, with just 225 police officers lining the pavement to deal with any unrest.
The march was seemingly good-natured as it snaked past the House of Commons to benign chants of, "No ifs, no buts, no education cuts". Repeated attempts at "sit-downs" to block the roads around Parliament Square lasted only a few minutes. Protesters became angry at one of their own when a green smoke canister hurled toward police struck a tourist instead. Police may not have known it, but word had quickly spread through the crowd that the Tory headquarters would be the target of an "action". Around 1.15pm a breakaway group of 200 or so activists stormed the Millbank building complex by the Thames, which contains the Tory party's HQ and a few government agencies. The NUS condemned the violence, saying it had not been planned.
Whoever did orchestrate the violent occupation, it did not go to plan, as activists initially entered Millbank Tower – the wrong building. Minimal security meant that minutes later they left easily and sprinted across the road to the building that houses the Tory party and barricaded themselves inside.
About 1,000 activists congregated in a courtyard outside, starting fires with burning placards and shouting chants of "Tory scum". Eggs, sticks and bottles were thrown at a thin line of police blocking the entrance, and officers were unable to prevent repeated crowd surges. They were overpowered at least six times. On each occasion dozens of protesters forced their way in. At least 14 people were taken to hospital with minor injuries, police said. Several police suffered head wounds.
Once inside, protesters took the lift to the third floor, got on to the roof and used chairs to smash windows from the inside. "We were in the courtyard [of Millbank] and people were smashing through the glass to get into the building and saying 'Come in', so we just went into the building," said Olivia Wedderburn, 18, from east London.
"Then there was an opportunity to go up the stairs so we thought 'Oh we'll do that', so we went up there. There were only about 20 or 30 people going up the stairs, but on the way up the whole staircase was flooded – they had pulled down a fire hose and flooded all the floors. All the windows were getting smashed, everything was getting smashed up all around."
She added: "They were mainly young students, [with] just a couple of older guys who looked like old-school anarchists." As night fell and territorial support group "snatch squads" began hauling activists out, large segments of the crowd turned against the occupiers of the building.
Many expressed dismay at the violence and when a fire extinguisher was hurled at police from the roof, chants condemning the coalition were replaced with an even louder chorus from the crowd below of "stop throwing shit".
NUS president, Aaron Porter, tweeted: "Disgusted that the actions of a minority of idiots are trying to undermine 50,000 who came to make a peaceful protest."
Summarising the sentiment of those who began walking away from the Millbank, which was strewn with broken glass and graffiti, Scott Sygrove, 18, from Bournemouth, said: "Protest is absolutely fine, but breaking windows is over the top. "We're all pissed off – pardon my French – but they are causing a lot of damage and frustration. This will only make things worse. Violence is not the answer to a peaceful protest."
From 6pm, the remaining groups of protesters in the courtyard were corralled in so-called "kettles" and arrested in small numbers. A chunk of the crowd moved to Parliament Square, where students carrying duvets said they planned to set up an "education camp".
Sebilio Uribe, 24, said: "We want to show that this a peaceful, proactive way to bring our message to the government and show we can organise and mobilise. "We aim to stay here for as long as possible until this government listens to the 50,000 students who have marched today."
A small group who remained in the ransacked lobby of Conservative HQ showed similar determination. One young woman did her make-up just feet from a uniformed riot officer. Another held up a sign reading: "We are hostages to the police. We are fine but want pizza, lower uni fees." source
Right on cue, exactly six months into David Cameron's premiership, the ancient British roar of "Tory scum" echoed across central London again. In honour of the coalition's deal on higher tuition fees, student protesters spliced their message with cheerful abuse of Nick Clegg. After almost 100 years of apathy Lib Dems can hold their heads high – hated at last. It is a cosy cliche of demonstrations that get out of hand that the kind of "unrepresentative minority" which attacked the Millbank Tower and its squat neighbour, 30 Millbank, had spoiled an otherwise good-tempered protest. Today this was true. Nobody riots in the rain, so the weather must share some blame. As hundreds of student buses converged on central London the sun shone provocatively from a blue sky. Streams of students poured into the Strand, the LSE contingent louder, as usual, than those from nearby UCL. "Banks don't cure disease", declared one gentle placard; "Science is more useful than duck islands" and "Ancient Norse is not a luxury," said others. The aggressive note struck by the inevitable Socialist Workers party's "F**k the Fees" poster was a hint of things to come, although the SWP asterisks hinted at tactical restraint in a way that the chant "Nick Clegg/We Know You/You're A Fucking Tory Too" did not. Shoppers, bemused tourists and non-graduate building workers in hard hats showed little hostility. David, a graphic designer from Devon, who has been "paying more than my fair share of tax" since graduating in 1966, was disdainful: "There is no such thing as free education. It is paid for by our taxes." In Trafalgar Square an irate bus driver confessed: "I was sympathetic until they blocked my bus. Where are the police?" Good question. Parliament itself, key Whitehall ministries and Lib Dem HQ in Cowley Street were well protected, but this was a decidedly under-policed demo – until it was too late. The first and more violent Grosvenor Square demo against the Vietnam war in 1968 attracted a reported 60,000, the poll tax riots of 1990 three times as many, the Chartist demo in 1848 even more. Yesterday's estimates ranged from 30,000 to 50,000, angry but polite. Diane Wheeler, a sixth-form teacher from Milton Keynes, carried a banner on behalf of her students. "Mrs Wheeler says No to higher tuition fees", it read. The students of 2010 seem much better dressed than the soixante-huitards. Old ideological certainties have also faded, but the crowd reflected the multicultural face of modern Britain. There were brand new Oxbridge scarves ("only six of us from St Anne's: I'm afraid everyone's too busy working"), six busloads from Canterbury's assorted campuses and four teenagers from Manchester sporting neat hijabs and a "Don't Crush My Dreams" poster. Creative arts students seemed especially fearful that their courses might be axed. Public school students ("my father's a diplomat, so I can afford the extra fees") declared solidarity with talented but poorer colleagues who might be squeezed out. "Cut fees – or we'll cut off your balls", declared the poster held by a young woman in pink trainers. The idea was that, after lobbying MPs – Cheltenham's Martin Horwood was the only Lib Dem MP to risk venturing outside – the throng would arrive outside Tate Britain for stirring speeches from the NUS leadership, many of whom will be MPs too in due course. But the unrepresentive minority had heard that the Millbank complex (in an earlier building the birthplace of Tony Benn) housed the Tory party HQ. Bare-chested, masked and armed with staves, they set about smashing windows. Why? "Tory HQ, property of the capitalist state, mate," explained one. Anarchists, street gangs, Trots or undercover police provocateurs – plenty of theories about the assailants' identity bounced around the crowd. Few took part, but many cheered. Inevitably they broke into both buildings. Eggs were thrown along with looted flowers. "Some twats have just decided to spoil it for the rest of us," cried Dan Hamilton, a mature student from Leicester. Only when the vanguard had reached the roof and started throwing things ("that's a fire extinguisher, completely out of order") did the Met's tactical support group appear in sufficient numbers to get a grip. Outside the Tate a female police officer nursed a badly bleeding head, a colleague a sharp blow to her face. Seven protesters were hurt too. Leaving their banners outside, some opted to duck out of the ruck and into the Tate's tranquillity for soup of the day (£3.85) and this month's special exhibition: the 18th-century Romantics – another group of frustrated young people breaking free of their elders. It seemed appropriate. source